Thanks to my nephew Dustin, a NASA engineer, I had the great fortune this past weekend of being a guest during “family day” at Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center. As a certified space nut, it was my third trip to the space center, but the first time I had the chance to go where tourists cannot go.

It was also a chance to witness the last time there will be one shuttle on the launch pad while another is in the hangar being prepared for a mission. Unless some unexpected budget dollars come through, the space shuttle program will have run its course after the next two flights. Discovery, now on the pad, is scheduled for liftoff Nov. 1 on mission SST 133. Endeavour, being meticulously worked over in its Orbital Processing Facility, is on track for a February flight. Atlantis is hanging out in its hangar, hoping for another chance.

Both shuttles are bound for the Inter-national Space Station (ISS), which could not have been built without the shuttles’ size and their boosters’ amazing lift capacity. Each orbiter is 122 feet long, with a 78 foot wingspan and a cargo bay that measures 60 feet long and 15 feet wide. With its wide doors, the shuttle’s payload bay has been used to transport multiple satellites, huge modules for the ISS, and a variety of research facilities. On multiple occasions, it has flown repair missions to the Hubble Space Telescope and other satellites. On the upcoming missions, Discovery will deliver a shipload of much-needed spare parts for the space station, whose construction is now complete. Endeavour will deliver a large Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer designed to detect cosmic rays and search for matter that has been theorized but not yet detected.

With 132 flights down and just two to go, the shuttle program has a proud history, marred only by the tragic losses of the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003, along with their crews. The program never achieved the twice-monthly launches that were once predicted for it, but it did demonstrate that spacecraft could be refitted and flown again and again (note the wear and tear on the close-up photo between a main engine and navigation thrusters), and it paved the way for discoveries that will continue for many years to come. 

It will be a sad day when the last shuttle is launched, in part because the Ares/Orion project that would have taken the next steps in space is now on hold due to budget restraints, and NASA will have to rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft and emerging commercial launch vehicles for transport to the International Space Station.

There is much more to NASA than human space flight, of course, and some of us find unmanned space exploration exciting, too, but it’s the notion of putting people in space that really gets the juices flowing, and we’ll be poorer as a nation without that ability.

I long for the day when it’s international warfare that we’re scaling back, freeing more money for programs that both help and inspire people. For me, few things are more inspirational than the thrill of vicariously joining those who “have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings . . .” (from “High Flight,” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.)

Flying in space may not enable us to “touch the face of God,” as Magee put it in the last line of his poem, but exploring the endless wonders of the universe can surely generate awe toward the One who created it.

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